Taking a closer look at Alzheimer's disease Thursday

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By The Staff

Take a closer look at Alzheimer’s disease with Dr. Gnana Gnanakaran as he deeply examines the molecular aspects of Alzheimer's disease and approaches to prevention Thursday.

Gnanakaran’s talk, which is part of the four-part Alzheimer’s lecture series, will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Bradbury Science Museum.

He will explain protein folding, misfolding and aggregation and how they could lead to human diseases. While Gnanakaran admits he is not a medical person, specifically an immunologist, his thesis work with a focus on physical chemistry has an emphasis on solute-solvent interactions.

Following his Ph.D. work, Gnanakaran became interested in conformational dynamics of peptides in aqueous environment. He joined Los Alamos National Laboratory with an interest of utilizing efficient computer algorithms to understand how proteins fold into their native shape.

“Specifically, I wanted to understand how a linear chain of amino acids is able to adopt a unique three-dimensional protein structure that is essential for its function,” Gnanakaran said.

The doctor had two motivations for coming to Los Alamos. The first was the possibility of working with his former mentor, Angel Garcia. Garcia is a world-renowned scientist and a protein folding expert.

The second reason was the availability of high performance computing resources.

“Even though we were able to use computational methodologies to study folding of peptides and proteins and answer very important basic biophysical questions, I really wanted to take computation closer to ‘real' biological problems,” Gnanakaran said.

This also led to his involvement in studying amyloid beta peptide that, Gnanakaran said, has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

His goal was to understand the molecular aspects of protein misfolding that is also associated with many other diseases including, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and mad-cow disease.

Gnanakaran hopes that the outcome of these computational studies will eventually aid in the design of molecules able to inhibit fibril formation or hinder oligomerization processes.

Gnanakaran explained how computer simulation techniques are essential complementary molecular level tools to experimental studies aimed at understanding and preventing misfolding related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. However, he said applicability of computer simulations to several medical related research problems has been somewhat limited due to issues related to timescales of the relevant processes and size scales of the biological systems.

“Recent advances in algorithms and emerging computational power are allowing us to overcome these limitations to study the folding and dynamics of biologically relevant proteins of larger sizes and to gain confidence on their predictability,” Gnanakaran said. “I am excited about the future in that we are not far away from using molecular simulation as a tool to directly probe issues that could help us understand disease at a molecular level and even in applications like drug resistance and identifying vaccine candidates.”

The Alzheimer’s disease lecture series is a partnership between the Bradbury Science Museum and the New Mexico chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. The series started in June. The next presentation will be held Aug. 21 with Lena Smith of the University of New Mexico discussing, “Research for the cause and hope for the cure.” The final presentation will feature Toni J. Camp, MD, discussing “Current pharmaceuticals and what is coming next.”

All lectures begin at 7 p.m. and are free and open to the public.

Bianca Zamora, a student intern at the museum, explained Pauline Schneider, executive director of the Los Alamos Retired and Senior Organization, organized the lecture series and asked the Bradbury staff if they would like to be the venue for the series.

The statistics in Los Alamos and in the nation about Alzheimer’s, prompted Schneider and the Memory Walk Planning Committee to take action. Schneider said the rate for Alzheimer’s in Los Alamos is higher than other communities in the state, and nationally, the disease has reached “epic proportions.”

Therefore, the planning committee decided the community needs to be educated about Alzheimer’s. Additionally, the lectures promote the upcoming Memory Walk. “It’s all kind of leading up to the Memory Walk on Oct. 4,” Schneider said.

Zamora encourages the community to participate in the lecture series “to be aware,” she said. “To just be able to distinguish myth from fact.”

In addition to awareness, the lecture series also helps people understand Alzheimer’s patients more.

Schneider said many people are not aware of the proportions of the disease or resources available to help.

She added, the Bradbury Museum was asked to be the venue rather than the senior center to show senior citizens are not the only ones exposed to Alzheimer’s. The information is relevant to anyone.

“We just put out the request ee and help educate all of us about this serious disease,” Schneider said.

The lecture series appears to be well attended so far. Schneider said Alzheimer’s patients, caregivers and the general public participated in the first lecture.

“They enjoy it and hopefully we can have more (lectures) in the future,” Zamora said.

For more information, call Schneider at 662-8920.